Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

Overview

Wrapped in the glow of the computer or phone screen, we cruise websites; we skim and skip. We glance for a brief moment at whatever catches our eye and then move on. Slow Reading in a Hurried Age reminds us of another mode of reading--the kind that requires our full attention and that has as its goal not the mere gathering of information but the deeper understanding that only good books can offer.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a practical guide for anyone who yearns for a ...

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Slow Reading in a Hurried Age

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Overview

Wrapped in the glow of the computer or phone screen, we cruise websites; we skim and skip. We glance for a brief moment at whatever catches our eye and then move on. Slow Reading in a Hurried Age reminds us of another mode of reading--the kind that requires our full attention and that has as its goal not the mere gathering of information but the deeper understanding that only good books can offer.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a practical guide for anyone who yearns for a more meaningful and satisfying reading experience, and who wants to sharpen reading skills and improve concentration. David Mikics, a noted literary scholar, demonstrates exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.

Reading, Mikics says, should not be drudgery, and not mere escape either, but a way to live life at a higher pitch. A good book is a pathway to finding ourselves, by getting lost in the words and works of others.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Although University of Houston English professor Mikics (The Art of the Sonnet) presents the guidelines in this thoughtful book as an antidote to the “continuous partial attention” that comes with distracted reading on the Internet, they are in fact the ground rules of the lit-crit technique known as “close reading,” pioneered by American academics in the middle of the 20th century. As he ably demonstrates, those rules are still valid for understanding literature today, and for an enriched reading experience. Likening engagement with a new book to traveling to a new land, Mikics offers 14 preliminary rules for familiarizing oneself with the terrain and applies them in studies of short stories, novels, poems, essays, and plays. Several rules seem obvious: “Be Patient,” “Get a Sense of Style,” and “Use the Dictionary.” For others, like “Identify Signposts,” “Track Key Words,” and “Find the Parts,” he shows how careful application of these rules deepens the reader’s grasp of the text—notably in his insightful deconstruction of Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries.” Mikics writes accessibly and with infectious enthusiasm on an impressively eclectic range of classic and contemporary texts. The reader who picks up this volume will likely already have been won over to Mikics’s argument, but the book’s pedagogical value for students is considerable. (Oct.)
Harold Bloom
There is nothing else like Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Mikics's fourteen rules are quite wonderful, and I will in teaching adopt them myself.
Booklist (starred review) - Bryce Christensen
Like [Charles] Lamb, Mikics understands how modern culture discourages reading for pleasure--especially in an Internet world of short-lived but insistent information. Inviting readers into a less frenetic, more rewarding world, Mikics explores a series of literary masterpieces, showing how getting lost in a book is still the best way to find joys we really want...Readers acquire stimulating perspectives on individual works by Homer and Whitman, Dickens and Cather, Shakespeare and Chekov. But they also develop the intellectual poise to set one work into play with others, across boundaries of nationality, style, and history. An exceptional book whetting readers' appetites for the savoring of many more.
Phillip Lopate
There is much solid wisdom and penetrating advice in these pages. David Mikics is an inspired teacher, and he has brought his rich pedagogic imagination to life in this book, which teaches us to fall in love again with great literature. The examples are wonderfully apt and wide-ranging.
West Australian
It may seem counterintuitive to read a book on slow reading in order to help you read more efficiently. But that's exactly what you stand to gain by (slowly) reading...Mikics' wise, common-sense guide to getting the most out of real reading--totally immersive reading...I can't recommend this book highly enough.
PopMatters - James Williams
Mikics insists that we are not in a world of declining reading, but quite the opposite. People are inundated with words that they feel compelled to read--in email, in tweets, in posts to social networking sites, in text messages--so much so that they can barely keep up. So we read fast and carelessly and we prize brevity at the expense of substance, a habit that is making all of us increasingly unable to concentrate on what is directly in front of us, constantly distracted as we are by pop-ups, embedded links, and the whole range of digital items that make constant demands on our time and attention...The choice of materials is eclectic but one of the finest achievements of the volume is how compellingly, but undogmatically, it makes the case for a literary canon, one not born of professorial or other fiat but of merit...The greatest strength of the volume is that in modeling slow reading of exemplary works of literature, it fosters exactly the qualities that such reading requires: sustained attention, attentiveness to detail, a willingness and ability to accommodate a gradually building realization of the significance of a given work.
Ploughshares online - Ian Stansel
A step-by-step guide to reading books amid the rushing world of an information-obsessed era. The book guides the reader through what amounts to a sort of extended independent study with a very approachable and patient professor.
Sydney Morning Herald - Owen Richardson
This addition to the growing store of literary how-to books opens with the stuff of countless essays and op-ed pieces: too much information, not enough concentration, it is time to slow down. All this functions as a preamble to advice about what to do after the smartphone is turned off: read more patiently and thereby rescue interior depth from the decentering storm of digital text. So although it serves as an introduction to practical criticism, it is also a work of moral improvement, primarily aimed not at students, the captive goal-oriented audience with teachers to please, but at adults with demanding, other-directed lives that hem in the room for contemplation. David Mikics’ relaxed point that we like to identify with characters in novels puts it plainly: reading is done self to self.
Barnes & Noble Review - Adam Kirsch
Beautifully and unabashedly edifying…Mikics is up to something more than just technical instruction. What separates Slow Reading in a Hurried Age from other popular or academic how‐to guides is Mikics’s urgent reverence for literature, which he wants to impress upon the reader. To read well, he clearly believes, is not just to master a skill; it is to become a certain kind of person…Mikics, in calm, authoritative prose, lays out the case that the way we read now is in many cases the enemy of reading as it is supposed to be…Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a guide to becoming a great reader. This is a very hard thing to teach: so much of what happens when we read is internal and instinctive, and it is hard to transform reactions into rules. But Mikics manages to do exactly that… The gift of Mikics’s book at the right moment could lead to a lifetime of good, slow reading.
Kirkus Reviews
Mikics (English/Univ. of Houston) argues that you can't truly enjoy literature unless you slow way down and read…well, the way he does. Throughout the book--an odd combination of literary exegeses and self-help suggestions--Mikics sprinkles complaints about the digital age and its current manifestations (Facebook, Twitter et al.) and asserts that they destroy our attention spans (is the increase of ADD related, he wonders?) and keep us on the surface of experience. His solution? Reading old books very slowly with an open dictionary alongside. Virtually all the authors he examines are dead (two are alive but "retired": Philip Roth and Alice Munro), so whiffs of antiquarianism waft up from most of the pages. Not that his arguments are unappealing. Of course we would all be better off if we read the classics and read them slowly; however, it just doesn't seem that likely to happen. Mikics declares that he's not advocating the "close reading" techniques described by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, but rather a more leisurely journey through significant works of literature--a journey which, he soundly argues, is enhanced by a knowledge of the author's biography and the cultural and historical contexts of the work. He then offers rules for readers, devoting a chapter to each--e.g., Be Patient, Get a Sense of Style, Use the Dictionary, Be Suspicious, Find Another Book. For each rule, Mikics offers ways to apply it to specific works. He ends with chapters on how to read various genres--with more analyses of specific works ranging from The Republic to Paradise Lost to Great Expectations. A learned and earnest but ultimately quixotic attempt to convince us that a stagecoach is better for us than a bullet train.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Edifying is not a word people use much these days. To be edified is to receive a combination of instruction and uplift, a dose of moral fortification; to be edifying, one must possess moral authority, the right to claim direction over the listener's conscience. Both halves of this equation are deeply unfashionable today. In a skeptical, democratic culture, we are loath to grant anyone the right to edify us, or admit that we might stand in need of edification. In Victorian England, literary sages like Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Ruskin attracted large audiences who trusted them to dispense needed words of wisdom. Who dares to write like that now?

One answer, it turns out, is David Mikics, whose Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is beautifully and unabashedly edifying. Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston, has designed his book as an introductory course for beginning readers. It offers rules -- fourteen of them -- for reading well, as well as many examples of how to approach classic novels, poems, and short stories. But throughout the book, Mikics is up to something more than just technical instruction. What separates Slow Reading in a Hurried Age from other popular or academic how-to guides is Mikics's urgent reverence for literature, which he wants to impress upon the reader. To read well, he clearly believes, is not just to master a skill; it is to become a certain kind of person.

Back in the 1960s, McLuhanites predicted that television would make us a post-literate society, able to think only in images. The rise of the Internet, however, has turned that expectation on its head. While we are certainly saturated in images, we are possibly even more saturated in text. No newsstand or library could hope to deliver the kind of access to writing that the Internet makes possible at the click of a button. Websites like this one have multiplied the venues for serious discourse about books. And the Internet has made us all writers, as well -- of e-mails and texts and Facebook status updates and Tweets.

To express skepticism about this bounty -- to suggest that the Internet takes away as much as it gives -- is to invite charges of elitism or Luddism. (Just look at the way Jonathan Franzen, by condemning Twitter, has become a villain all over Twitter.) But Mikics, in calm, authoritative prose, lays out the case that the way we read now is in many cases the enemy of reading as it is supposed to be. "The Internet presents a seeming infinite volume of choices. But when we plunge into this electronic ocean of possibilities, we often feel that choice has been taken away from us.... The Net rules us by demanding that we choose as much as we can, as frequently as we can, so that we don't miss out on anything.... We have too many choices of things to read -- or glance at."

The antidote to this franticness, Mikics argues, is "slow reading." The slow-food movement arose in reaction to fast food, demanding mindfulness and high quality instead of cheap convenience; so, too, slow reading is a protest against the ill effects of hurried text consumption. "Slow reading is part of the new idea of slowness, the answer to the frazzled nerves and sometimes witless frenzy of the linked-up world we live in," Mikics writes.

Yet the "new idea of slowness" is really a very old idea. It is the humanistic belief that a good book can teach us, improve us, even edify us, if we submit to its just demands on our attention. Fast reading is goal-oriented; slow reading is an end in itself, the way art is supposed to be. Indeed, there is an art of reading, which Mikics insists will reward those who take the time to learn it: "Literature repays our attention because it is finely worked, because we can take it inside ourselves, sustain ourselves on the aptness and strength of its words." It is possible to be a great reader, just as it is to be a great writer, and the latter couldn't exist without the former.

Slow Reading in a Hurried Age is a guide to becoming a great reader. This is a very hard thing to teach: so much of what happens when we read is internal and instinctive, and it is hard to transform reactions into rules. But Mikics manages to do exactly that, in part by not being afraid to state things that will strike an experienced reader as obvious. Mikics's "Rule Five: Notice Beginnings and Endings," is illustrating by a discussion of Wordsworth's poem "Resolution and Independence," showing how a work's opening can serve as a kind of map of its whole trajectory. In "Rule Nine: Find the Author's Basic Thought," Mikics explains how the answer to the question "What is this work about?" does not necessarily involve its plot or setting but larger questions of theme and authorial intent. Thus, "The Canterbury Tales is not, except in the most trivial sense, about a collection of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. Instead, it's about how a sympathetic appreciation of personalities can coexist with a satirical consciousness of their all-too-human faults, so that sympathy and satire comment on each other."

What Mikics is really doing, it becomes clear, is teaching readers to think like writers. This means seeing a literary work not as a predestined whole but as a series of choices -- or, better, a series of responses to questions. Why does the author use this word or kill off that character? Why does she write a novel rather than a short story or a play? What problem does the work try to solve? This way of reading allows the reader to enter into partnership with the author, which is how literature becomes genuine communication. "With time, you will come closer and closer to a sense of the living core of an author's project, the basic thought behind it," Mikics promises.

There is always a certain problem of audience with books like Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. People who are already committed to a life of reading will not need it, and people who are indifferent to literature will not want it. Its ideal reader is someone at the beginning of his or her reading life -- a high school or college student interested in serious reading but not yet certain of how it's done. For those readers, in particular, the gift of Mikics's book at the right moment could lead to a lifetime of good, slow reading.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674724723
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/8/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 232,546
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

David Mikics is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.
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